“There are people who like the bizarre and the strange, and those are the people you do bizarre and strange things for.”

That’s one of the marketing tips from Stewart Intagliata, director of operations and owner of St. Louis-based Unispot, Inc. Like many (if not most) HVAC salespeople, Intagliata has faced his share of difficulties getting appointments to see prospective customers. It’s the first hurdle in selling — the one popularized by the cartoon with the salesperson’s foot stuck in the prospect’s door. If you can’t see them, you can’t sell them.

Fortunately, not every prospect is standoffish. Intagliata says there are big differences geographically.

“If I’m in Mississippi, I can get in to see anybody I want. They might not do business with you, but they’ll sit there and talk to you for an hour,” he says.

New Yorkers, on the other hand, tend to be more brusque while, in his opinion, Californians are less focused. South of the border, though, there’s another factor at work. Intagliata says you have to establish a friendship before you can do business.

“I remember flying down to Mexico, my first time, and walking off the plane and the guy kissed me on the cheek. That was his way. What are you going to do? You just sort of stand there and say, ‘I appreciate it.’”

Obstructions And Obstacles

Perversely, new “advances” in communications technology have made it harder than ever to make person-to-person contact. Bill Nowak, vice president of Martin Walshin, Inc., in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., says, “You have layers of firewalls before you can reach somebody that can make a decision these days.”

Selby Seay, HVAC Division Sales Manager for Reliable Products in Geneva, Ala., agrees.

“Voice mail to me is a real headache,” he says. “With cold calls, they don’t call us back 90 percent of the time. We have to call them again. We also use the fax machine a lot.”

Technology isn’t the only roadblock, either, according to Steve Hill, sales and marketing manager of Blender Products, Inc., Denver, Colo. He says there’s also “the business of engineers trying to run offices with minimal staff. As corporations have gotten bigger and marketing and sales strategies have become so much more elaborate, we find that engineers are just tired of having people in their face all the time.”

Jerry Moechnig, sales representative for Architectural Energy Corp., Boulder, Colo., points out, “In this economy, more businesses are having fewer people do more work. That’s just the reality that we have to live with.”

Be Persistent Over And Over Again

That’s why, according to Intagliata, you do what you have to do.

“If a guy won’t return your calls, just keep calling him,” he advises. “Keep calling. Keep calling until you get him. Some guys are just that way.”

Moechnig quantifies the process, saying, “I try to be patient. It takes anywhere from five to eight calls and messages for somebody to return your call.”

Intagliata outlines some other methods he’s used.

“I’ve stayed outside of places and waited an hour, hour and a half, for people to come out so I can talk to them,” he says. “Or you’ve got to know somebody. A wholesaler can get you in a lot of places you can’t get into just by cold calling.”

The machines may have made it more difficult, but they haven’t taken over completely, according to Hill. He says Blender Products works on “Maintaining direct relationships with end users, with specifying engineers, while at the same time maintaining a sales force to echo our message. The importance in this industry of continuing to have that face-to-face relationship, which only a local person can build, still holds a lot of weight.”

Attracting Attention

“Sometimes you have to put yourself outside of the box,” says Moechnig. “So many people get so many calls everyday, and people just don’t have all the time they need to do all the work they have to do. Fresh-baked cookies is probably the best door opener that comes to mind.”

There’s general agreement that cookies — or other signs of appreciation — help establish customer relationships. Seay says, “What we like to do is attend customer appreciation days and give door prizes away to their customers.”

“You grease the wheels,” Intagliata says. “You send them a shirt, a handwritten note, news clippings. If it’s handwritten, they’ll open it. It’s the soft things. It’s the relationships.”

Moechnig, too, follows a straighter path to get the customer’s attention. In fact, he has a very systematic approach.

“Typically, we’ll do a mailing, then an e-mailing. Then we make an effort to call those individuals with whom we had prior contact,” he says.

And what happens after numerous calls? Moechnig says he makes just one more.

“When you reach that point when you’re finally ready to throw in the towel, I find it very beneficial to leave one last message that reiterates what I’m trying to say, then tells them that this will be the last call I’ll make to them. That gets a response 15 to 20 percent of the time.”

It’s Still About People

Establishing relations with a new customer isn’t the only part of the sales game that can be problematic. Unfortunately, existing customers sometimes drift away and it can be even harder to get their attention than to get an appointment with someone that doesn’t know you. After all, they know (or at least think they know) what you have to sell.

“I was one of those people,” says Intagliata. “I wouldn’t listen to anybody. How much can you tell me about a humidifier? You turn it on, you add water, and you’re ready to go.”

To get back on the past customer’s radar screen, Moechnig recommends trying something different.

“We did a mailing campaign to previous customers to re-intrigue them,” he says. “We went to an old record store and bought some cheap LP’s. We brought them back to the office and broke them with a hammer and stuck them in an envelope with a mailing that said ‘we hate to sound like a broken record….’”

It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling sheet metal, diagnostic software, or million-dollar multi-workstation cooling systems, you still have to get the customer’s attention first. The best way is on the human level, because, despite a widespread opinion to the contrary, customers are people, too. You need to understand their foibles.

As Intagliata says, “They’re all crazy, but I like crazy people.”

Donelson, a freelance writer who also speaks frequently on sales, marketing, and management, is the author of Creative Selling: Boost Your B2B Sales. He can be reached at 914-949-7483; dave@davedonelson.com.

Publication date: 06/30/2003